Friday, July 5, 2013

Policing Our Own in the Geek Nation


Cosplay used to be the exclusive province of the actors
hired by the companies to portray their characters. That
time is long past.
 Okay, enough's enough.

I've got to talk about this, because apparently, it's just not going to fix itself. Between the Science Fiction community and the Comic Book Conventions there has arisen a weird and completely inappropriate response to the steady influx of new blood into the geek nation. One would think, in the year 2013, that the Geek Nation would be grateful for new blood, but apparently, the supposedly enlightened and forward-thinking super nerds of the world have a problem with letting "those kinds" of people into their fun house, never mind playing with their toys.

It's the Cosplayers. It's the Fake Fans. You know, the ones who don't really "get it." The ones who dress up instead of go deep into the underpinnings of a certain character. The ones who weren't persecuted and driven away from the village for their beliefs, you know, like I was, once, long ago. You know who I'm talking about...Girls.

That's right! Girls in our convention! And they are dressing up as Captain America, and having fun, and getting attention, and it's JUST NOT FAIR! Not when I worked SO HARD on my pun-filled filksong about Firefly. And nobody is listening now, because everyone is watching the costume parade, instead. 

Obviously, that's not me, but I imagine that a lot of the nerd-rage in the electronic gaming, Science Fiction and fantasy, and Comic book communities sounds a lot like this in their heads. You have to know, they don't know how it sounds to other people. But the backlash from all of this new attention has brought some old, deep, salt-encrusted wounds to the top again, and those wounds will have to be debrised before they can heal. As an aside, we maybe need to leave those people who are too wounded to join us on the next leg of the journey at the watering hole, where they can be picked off by natural predators.

It's hard to know exactly where to start with this topic. Tony Harris' rant about cosplayers and "fake fans" seems like a good point of entry to the discussion, because it highlights some serious anger that has nothing to do with what's being discussed. Then again, the more recent Science Fiction Writers of America's blow-up happened just a few weeks ago, so that could be more topical. If those stories seem too broad, let's talk about one case in particular that is emblematic of the whole problem: the Black Cat cosplayer's harassment incident.

I think this about says it all. Here's a woman who does regular cosplay, and at her local convention, to boot, and she's chosen to portray the Black Cat, aka Felicia Hardy. For those of you who haven't read comics in thirty years, she's basically Marvel's version of Catwoman, only she's romantically involved with Spider-Man instead of Batman. Here's a cover from one of her comics:
This was the most tame picture of the
Black Cat I could find online. 

Now, the cosplayer in the story above (and there's a picture of her in said costume) bears a striking resemblance to the Black Cat. As a cosplay goes, it's an A+ job, all the way.

Part of the reason why cosplayers do what they do is to get feedback for presenting an authentic recreation of the character. That's unmistakably an aspect of cosplay. So, if I were to walk up to her and say, "That's an amazing costume. You look just like the Black Cat!" then that would be an appropriate thing to say.

I could, also, if I were so inclined, choose to engage this person as if she were really The Black Cat. That's also an aspect of why people cosplay. It's not for everyone, obviously, but by and large, if they are wearing the costumes, they are engaging in recreating that character as an avatar for interaction. So again, if I was to walk up to her and say something like "You know, Felicia, I wish you'd stop pining away for Spider-Man and just move on. You deserve some happiness in your life, and chasing after that web-head isn't going to do it." That would be a weird thing to say, but it would also be an appropriate interaction. It would be less weird if I was in a costume as well, dressed as Batman, or Spider-Man, or whatever, and make some in-character joke, for the benefit of the audience that has by now gathered around, gawking, staring, and leering as is usually the case.

Or, as a last ditch effort, if you lack the social acumen to walk up to a woman in a public gathering and not make an ass of yourself, you can just snap a picture or two and walk on. I think that's kinda creepy, but hey, it's not my choice, either.

You know what's not an appropriate interaction? Anything in this article by Cracked Online, for starters. Or anything like what this one cosplayer had to deal with. At her local show. Where she knows people personally.

But that's cosplay. It doesn't spill over into the world of literary Science Fiction and Fantasy, right? Guess again, Chuckles. Cosplay has been around in the smaller sub-circles of fandom for decades. People were dressing in Star Trek costumes for years before it was fashionable to do anything else. When the stormtrooper costumes, the Boba Fett costumes, and the Jedi Knight costumes first showed up in force in the early to mid 1990s, do you know who was the most pissed about it? The Trek fans in costume! Yeah. How dare someone else do what we were doing first!

But those were teapot tempests, you know. When all of the fans broke open the seals on the gates of Fan Fiction with their Harry Potter stories...well, that was just ridiculous. Until, you know, it wasn't. When all of the teenage girls started showing up at conventions dressed as Sailor Moon, that was just a fad. You know, until it wasn't.

Then a couple of professional actors revealed that they play computer and online games, and well, that was interesting, in the way that you can go to the local fair and see a chicken that plays tic-tac-toe. And through it all, from the early 1990s right up to 2012, when the bantha pooda hit the fan, everyone else chose to ignore it. Fans could see the difference, but not articulate it. Conventions continued to employ out-of-work actresses as "booth weasels," dressing them as either sci-fi sexpots, or as Hooter's waitresses, in the assured hopes that the underwashed, oversexed Geekoid masses would flock to their tables and pick up piles of their Chinese-made tchotchkes branded with whatever shitty movie or television show they were trying to get us to watch. Costume contests exploded, and a bunch of really nice, professional-looking costumes, worn by people straight out of central casting, all looking better than the actors hired to stand outside the DC Comics booth, were everywhere. Suddenly, there's an influx of Steampunk in all aspects of the sub-culture, including a metric ton of books that were never considered to be "real" science fiction. Costumes were everywhere. Families of geeks were attending comic book conventions. It was mad, I tell you, mad!

Then the scandals started. The accusations rose to the top like curds in cream. And like a good curd, they were all loud and squeaky. I'd see one go across my computer screen and think, "Wow, that sucks. Well, at least it'll be dealt with swiftly." But then the scandals just kept coming. More and more, all in different flavors, but all basically revolving around a kind of weird battle of the sexes. And I think it boils down to just one thing: Girls.

I really think that the Secret Masters of Fandom that run these conventions every year, the older, more established professionals in all of these sub-industries, and the fans themselves need to stop and take a good, long look at where we are from where we started out. I can remember a time, not too long ago, when comic book convention were graced with only a few people in costume. There was usually one woman who dressed as a super hero--Dark Phoenix--and she was kinda crazy, so people gave her a wide berth. There were no "booth babes," and the ratio of men to women at these conventions was roughly 90/10.

That was twenty five years ago.

I knew my time had passed back in 2003. I was working as a manager at a bookstore in Austin, Texas, and we had a large number of geeks in our employ. Back in 2004, I thought that meant we had girls who read comics. I'd had a few discussions with them about it, but never anything deep. I just thought it was, you know, interesting, because when I was in high school, if I wanted one of my girlfriends to read a comic book, I would have had to tie them to a chair and pry their eyes open, Clockwork Orange-style. Of course, when I was in high school, saying the word "Batman" conjured up an image of Adam West, doing the Batusi, and nothing else. So, you know, that was my experience.

One evening at the bookstore, I was shelving books when I heard a conversation between two of the women working that night. These were young women, early twenties both. It was a passionate discussion, in the tone regularly heard throughout the store when discussion the merits of Hemingway or the plotlines of Jane Austen. They were arguing over which Green Lantern was the one, true Green Lantern. I am not kidding.

One girl was making the case for Kyle Rayner being "her" Green Lantern, because he is the one who best encompasses her generation. His problems, his personality...all part of what she liked best about him. The other girl was insistent that if it's not Hal Jordan, it's just not Green Lantern. Hal was the classic, she argued, and everything else was a dalliance or a sales gimmick.

I leaped out from around the corner and shouted at them both, "You can NOT have this conversation without including me!" They both scattered like grouse, laughing at the old man, but the truth of that story should be obvious. Fans, and especially the older (40+ years old) fans tend to think that they discovered, well, whatever they first discovered, and were the last people to dig on it.

THE FUTURE IS NOW

It's a new generation of fans now. These are fans who grew up in the age of Harry Potter, when it was okay to read for pleasure in school. These fans grew up with the Star Wars prequels, bless their hearts. They grew up with the Internet, where they met people and developed friendships for years that turned into meet-ups at national conventions that had little to do with interacting with the Guest of Honor and everything to do with interacting with one another. This generation grew up reading (and watching) Japanese pop culture and comics, rather than reruns of Star Trek. They never tried to piece together from their meager comic book collection how many multiple Earths DC had floating around. They google that shit, instead of chasing it down in back issues for years and years.

And most importantly, their fan activity is very different, though no less valid, than our own. They engage the material in ways that I never will. They write fan fiction to address subtext in a story. They make their own costumes by hand, to better identify with these characters. They flip the gender on a super hero in order to take ownership of that character when maybe the other choices available to them don't speak to them directly. There's probably a component of irony in there, too, for the guys who insist on dressing up as Wonder Woman, But that's neither here nor there.

These new fans don't codify, organize, memorize, and catalogue the details and minutiae of their favorite show or character. They are much more interested in the bigger picture.  For them, fandom is not a closed, private club that you have to know the secret knock and the password to get into. For them, it's wide-open, social, and interactive. This is the new fan dynamic. And it's here to stay.

Well, maybe not. Right now, I'm going to estimate that the male to female ratio at, say, ComicCon International is roughly 60/40. There are other shows with a national bent that may be closer to 55/45 or even 50/50. I'll just bet you that there are more female than male geeks at, say, A-Kon, which is all about Anime. But I think it's safe to say that with more women than ever involved in both the creative/professional side of these sub-cultures as well as the fandom side of these sub-cultures, it's time to move our mental picture of "what fandom is" forward into the 21st century. We're supposed to be the visionaries of modern culture. It's time we acted like it, dammit.

Now, if you're not playing along, I can assume there's one or more of three reasons why this is so.

1. You are bitter, old, and cranky. You remember a time when you were pushed into a locker for daring to wear a Star Trek t-shirt to school. You were lonely, an outcast, and sad. Then you found fandom, and suddenly, all of the other kids who were bullied and tormented were here, in the room with you, and you felt as if you truly belonged somewhere.

Now these NEW kids...they don't get that. They were never bullied. Some of the girls are very pretty, and remind you of a time when you couldn't talk to them. So, naturally, you resent these new fans coming into your backyard (not really yours) and playing with YOUR toys (not really yours) and all without having to pay any "dues," which never existed anyway.

Your problem is your Jealousy. Get over it, and be a goodwill ambassador and a gracious host.


A convention moment caught in time. They are looking at me, slightly
miffed because I'm taking a picture before they could pose for me, and
Captain Kirk is looking at...well, he's not looking at their booth swag. And
yes, that is a wrestling belt slung over his shoulder.
2. Maybe you just don't know what to do. I mean, for years, in the SCA, it was okay to compliment the serving wenches on their ample bosoms at the Feast in Honor of Sir Clovis, of the Realm of Spitcup. Now here's this hot--I mean, smoking hot--woman over there, dressed in the same sort of bodice, and even though she's calling herself "The White Queen," she's not responding to any of my Ren Faire jokes. I don't understand. Everyone laughs when I do that bit from Monty Python about the huge tracts of land.

Besides, I wouldn't hurt a fly. Everyone knows that about me, right? I've been going to this convention since it was called GrokCon, and I've told that story about drinking at the bar with Nichelle and De Forrest to everyone who will listen, for years, you know, just you realize that I'm in the inner circle.

Your problem is your Social Ineptitude. Also, your peer group. They need to teach you, or ban you.


3. Or maybe you can't understand what the problem is. I mean, after all, anyone wearing that costume clearly is just asking for it, right? Right? And if you're putting that vibe out, it would be wrong to not say something about it. I mean, you know how these cons are. Everyone hooks up. Everyone gets laid. Those bitches handing out the Expendables II keychains over there? Just look at how they are dressed. They're begging for it, man!

So what if the hand should slip while Catwoman is posing with me for a picture? That's what she's there for, right? It's all good clean fun. Why dress like a sex object if I'm not allowed to objectify you? Right, fellas? Can I get a high five?

Your problem is your Misogyny. And you need to leave and never come back.

T.C.B., Baby. T.C.B.

I think the solution to all three negative reactions above comes down to one thing: we need to police our own. The days of cons being our own little private gatherings are over. Unless, you know, you want to throw your own little private gathering for whatever kink or sub-human throwback activity you're into. I'm assuming that most of the people running conventions wants greater participation, new blood in the hobby, and a positive, if not friendly, face for the outside world. Greater participation from women is one big step in that direction, and with it should come a general cleaning of house.

Policing our own is, I think, the best way to quickly get a handle on this problem. John Scalzi recently posted his new rules for appearing at conventions and I think it's a brilliant first step. What the Secret Masters of Fandom and the other Convention Planners and Fan Groups need to take from that is this: get in front of the problem. You probably have it, and don't even know about it, because there's no way to address it. Worse, some of you know exactly who in your community has been guilty of this kind of behavior before and you haven't done anything about it because "Well, that's just his way," or "You don't know him the way some of us do." Yeah, that's not going to cut it anymore.

I don't think you have to be mean about it. Just firm, and polite. I understand that in the SFnal communities, we tend to play fast and loose with what constitutes socially acceptable behavior. After all, we ALL know what's it's like to be picked on, bullied, and ostracized, right? And so as a matter of tacit acceptance, we don't want to be perceived as doing that to someone in return. Not one of our own, I mean.

Well, it doesn't have to be mean. You just have to decide that you're going to do it. Pull the fan in question aside, and say, "I know you probably aren't doing this on purpose, but X and Y need to stop right now. It's not cool. It's actually very sexist, and it's not appreciated."

If that fan gets upset about it, that's his decision to do so. He can either bitch and moan, or thank the person for pointing it out to him and rejoin the party. If he continues being an offensive clown, pull him aside again, and say, "This is your second warning. Get ahold of yourself, or you will be removed from this convention."

The third time, he's out. And done for the weekend. And if he's shown that he can't, in fact, keep from saying certain things, or acting a certain way, he can't come back to the convention again. Period.

I would go so far as to say, before the convention starts, "Hey, WarBear, you know, in the past, you've done some things that have made people uncomfortable. Well, here's the new policy for this convention, and we want to make sure you saw it so that you can decide to either follow it to the letter, or not participate in any of the parties or extra-curricular activities during the con." Then you don't even need to give him three chances. He gets one.

Here's why Policing Our Own is a good thing:

1. It'll actually help some folks--the folks who never ever learned how to speak to women in the first place--by breaking those bad habits and that "convention behavior" that no one ever liked, but merely tolerated, because, well, he was one of us. Those folks need the help, and pulling them off to one side to let them know they are still welcome, but now they have to act like grown-ups, is a good thing. Not everyone will be this way, of course. But some will change, because they value the social interaction.

2. It will quickly bring the neanderthals to the fore, because it'll force a confrontation with them. Unless you're at a Gor convention, you'll want to know who thinks the new policies are "bullshit" and quickly, too. These are the people holding us back. We have enough crosses to bear as fans of this stuff, already. We don't need people like this weighing us down. They've been hiding in this sub-culture for years, and it's high time we de-creeped the Geek Nation once and for all.

3. It will make conventions way less actionable should something go wrong. If the fans are actively self-policing, and there is a clearly stated sexual harassment policy in place, then congratulations, we have joined the human race. Incidents get dealt with, people banned, and we move on. Being a safe place for fan activity encourages more fans to come join us, and that keeps all of this healthy and active and still remains our "sacred space," where we go to unwind, to be who we are, and to temporarily escape the real world. If you think this is largely unnecessary, may I refer you to the current DragonCon controversy? I'm not saying that every instance will blossom into this, but I'm frankly surprised that more civil suits haven't been filed regarding sexual harassment. It's sheer dumb luck, I tell you, that E3 or ComicCon International hasn't had any legal problems.

 
Now, on the other side of things is this: I think we are all going to have to take stock of our behavior at conventions and grow-the-hell-up.

In a world where flirting can potentially turn into romance, it's going to be hard to get people in fandom--many of whom are actually proud of the fact that they have personality traits that show up on the Autism Spectrum--to recognize when "No" means "No." So, we're going to have to be very firm, insistent, and deliberate with the socially awkward geeks in our midst. We may have to invent a society where there is no subtext. This will be nigh-impossible, because fans lives for subtext in everything they ingest.

I'm talking about people behaving like professionals. I'm talking about behaving as if we're out in public (which we all are) instead of in our friend from Junior High's basement. The sexual innuendo, the double entendres, the wordplay and puns...all that has to stop. Okay, maybe not the puns. But there is a time and a place for punning, and if you don't know when and where that is, then you shouldn't pun. Ever. At all. For any reason.

It's going to be difficult. After all, most pros are also fans. And many pros and fans have a more convivial relationship, out of necessity. If you are a working professional and you are not George R.R. Martin, you need to network with the people that like your stuff. And should you ever break out, the way that George R.R. Martin did, you tend to take your fans with you. It's a victory lap that everyone can share, provided that your fans don't descend on the people who are cosplaying characters from A Game of Thrones and "doing it wrong" because they are dressing as the HBO versions instead of the book versions of the characters. But you get my meaning, I think.

I don't think it's unfair to ask people to behave in the same way they would if they were at, say, a work party. Or a social gathering at a non-geek's friends' house. And when it comes to the pick-up line, or misreading signals, well, those rules have been in place for far longer than all of us. No DOES mean no, after all. And if you misread a situation, then that's your lack of sophistication on display. Apologize and move on. Don't hang around, hoping to salvage something. Be a gentleman. Take the high road and never look back. Oh, hell, I hate having to spell this out for people. It's socially retarded. But hey, you know, there are some grown-ass men (and women) out there who don't know how to behave in public, much less inside the closed doors of fandom. Maybe a few etiquette and manners courses are in order. We'll call them "panels" and schedule them opposite the costume contest. 

This new group of people, these young girls and young women, are here, now, among us, and they want to be here. We need to be the goodwill ambassadors for The Geek Nation and welcome them with open arms. They need to be made to feel welcome, and safe, and we need to let them do their own thing. That's real acceptance, in a Star Trek, everyone is special, kind of way. It's not a boy's club anymore. It's a club for people. And we can be a part of this New Geek-World Order, or we can be slowly, painfully, drubbed out of the world we helped build. Because that's what happens to dinosaurs. They either become birds, or they end up in the tar pits.



Post a Comment